Hollywood Takes on the Napoleonic Legend

Nearly 200 years after his death, Napoleon remains an ever-present source of fascination and controversy. Ridley Scott’s biopic, starring American actor Joaquin Phoenix in the title role, has catapulted the French Emperor’s face and complex legacy onto buses, buildings, and movie screens across the world. To sort the myths from the facts, from Austerlitz to Hollywood, we sat down with Princeton historian and Napoleon biographer David Bell. In his latest book, Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution, he investigates what he calls the “Napoleonic cult” and the Emperor’s lasting hold on the collective imagination.
Joaquin Phoenix in Ridley Scott’s Napoléon. © Apple TV+

France-Amérique: Napoleon has inspired the world of cinema, with over 1,000 movies made about him. As a historian, would you say there are any worth watching on this side of the Atlantic?

David Bell: Not particularly! I do have a soft spot for the old Marlon Brando film, Désirée (1954). Brando was a great actor, so even though it’s done as a hokey love story, it’s still a lot of fun to watch. It’s not hugely accurate, historically, but it’s not too bad compared to some other movies.

In your opinion, who was the best Napoleon on screen?

That’s easy: Albert Dieudonné in Abel Gance’s 1927 Napoléon. Never been beat. First of all, he looks like the young Napoleon, and he holds himself like you would imagine Napoleon would hold himself. He has a kind of intensity to him which I think captures what everybody who knew Napoleon said about him. It’s such a gloriously good film! On the other side of the scale, it was very difficult for me to watch the 2002 French-Canadian miniseries with Christian Clavier as Napoleon without thinking of him in Les Visiteurs (1993). I kept imagining Napoleon as a peasant from the Middle Ages… Dieudonné was a great actor, and a great Napoleon.

Albert Dieudonné in Abel Gance’s Napoleon, 1927. © PictureLu/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy

Is Ridley Scott’s Napoleon a worthy contender?

Nowhere near, no. Ridley Scott is a director who’s in it for the entertainment, for the spectacle. He doesn’t care about historical accuracy at all; he has said as much many times. And Joaquin Phoenix didn’t do it for me in the movie. He’s what I would call a schlub! He’s overweight, and the way he holds himself make him look like Napoleon at the end of his career. He’s actually almost the same age Napoleon was when he died. In addition, Joaquin Phoenix plays Napoleon as an immature, petulant, lovesick puppy. There are embarrassing scenes of him and his wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais, making love, which are deliberately ridiculous. And while you do get to see the Emperor who rose from his humble origins in Corsica to become one of the greatest conquerors in history, what you don’t get is any sense of his motivation beyond Joséphine. Napoleon was somebody who had an enormous amount of energy and ambition, and you don’t get to see any of that in the film. You don’t get to see the Napoleon who inspired millions of people.

In Désirée, Henry Koster also chose to portray Napoleon through the lens of a love story. To make the French Emperor into a Hollywood success, does he have to be a heartthrob?

If you’re making a movie about Désirée Clary, Napoleon’s one-time fiancée, you can absolutely make it a love story! But if you’re making a movie about Napoleon’s life, then it’s a lot more difficult to justify concentrating only on the love story! This is particularly problematic in Ridley Scott’s portrayal of the Hundred Days. In March 1815, Napoleon escaped from exile in Elba, landed between Cannes and Antibes, marched to Paris, and managed to retake power. It’s a spectacular episode, but the film makes it all about Napoleon wanting to go back to Joséphine. One problem is that Joséphine had already been dead for ten months at that point! And then, the idea that he would do this dangerous, spectacular, difficult, and ambitious thing just because he missed his honeybunch… It seems pretty silly. And earlier on, the film had already claimed that Napoleon returned to France from his Egypt campaign in 1799 because of Joséphine’s infidelity. Again, pretty silly.

Napoleon (Marlon Brando) and his fiancée, Désirée Clary (Jean Simmons), in Henry Koster’s Désirée, 1954. © Cinematic/Alamy
Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix) and his wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby), in Ridley Scott’s film. © Apple TV+

What did you enjoy about the film?

The Battle of Austerlitz of 1805, on a frozen lake, was stunning. The film is entertaining in a lot of ways, particularly the battle scenes. They’re spectacular, as you would expect with a huge budget and a very experienced director. And at least he got the uniforms right! The weapons were more or less right, but the military tactics were wildly inaccurate. Ridley Scott showed the French attacking in line, which is the way the British attacked. Even worse, he showed Napoleon personally leading a cavalry charge during the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, which is laughable. The same goes for him shooting cannonballs at the Egyptian pyramids, which looks cool, but never happened. In terms of historical accuracy, the film is a travesty.

Critics have said that Joaquin Phoenix was too tall for the role. What’s your opinion?

Napoleon was not short! That remains the greatest victory of British propaganda, and particularly of James Gillray’s cartoons, which always portrayed him as a dwarf. Napoleon was probably about 5 feet, 6 inches, which was an average height for the time. In fact, people in France did not comment on Napoleon being short. He was certainly shorter than some of his soldiers, but he was not unusually short.

James Gillray, The Plumb-Pudding in Danger, or State Epicures Taking “un Petit Souper,” 1805. © Library of Congress

Ridley Scott was criticized for devoting a big-budget biopic to Napoleon, who reinstated slavery in 1802, rather than figures such as Haitian freedom fighters Toussaint Louverture or Jean-Jacques Dessalines. What are your thoughts on this controversy?

Hollywood is of course driven by what they think will be a great story and a commercial success. I’m sure that Napoleon will make a lot more money than a movie called Dessalines or Louverture! Although Toussaint Louverture would actually be a great subject for a biopic. Napoleon had a huge impact on world history, so I don’t see anything wrong with making a film about his life. Plus, I don’t think Ridley Scott particularly glorifies him. In fact, at the end, viewers get to see the number of dead for each battle in the Napoleonic Wars. By implying that this shallow person caused the deaths of so many people, the director is trying to make a kind of historical point.

But does he condemn Napoleon at all?

Not particularly, no. Napoleon did a lot of bad things, and it would have been interesting to explore that side of him, to explore the Napoleon who came to power in a coup, who crushed political opposition, who imposed censorship, whose men slaughtered civilians, and whose armies executed prisoners of war when it was inconvenient to keep them. What about the Napoleon who was so ruthless in his policy that he reimposed slavery in the French Caribbean colonies? If you’re going to make a serious movie about Napoleon, you have to take all of this into account.

Many people, including Ridley Scott himself, have likened Napoleon to Adolf Hitler. Do you think that’s a fair comparison?

The ways of evil are manifold. Napoleon was a dictator at home. He reversed the decision of the revolutionary regime on slavery. His wars led to the deaths of millions of people. But again, he had accomplishments that many people still praise to this day – the Napoleonic Code, the creation of the Conseil d’Etat, the Banque de France, the prefects, and the institution of the Légion d’Honneur, to name just a few. So he is a very different figure from that of Hitler. The comparison is essentially useless. Actually, the worst thing to ever happen to Napoleon’s reputation was done by Hitler himself. When he visited Paris after the fall of France in June 1940, he went to the Invalides. There’s this incredible picture of the Führer looking down at Napoleon’s tomb. That creates an association of ideas, right?

Napoleon I (Joaquin Phoenix) crowning his wife, Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby), 1804. A scene largely inspired by the painting by Jacques-Louis David. © Apple TV+

These past few years, the French have clashed over how to commemorate Napoleon’s legacy in 21st-century France. What’s your position on the matter?

This debate goes back a long time. In 2005, France held the bicentennial of the Battle of Austerlitz, and Jacques Chirac, who was president at the time, did not want to commemorate it, saying that Napoleon was a dictator who had destroyed the Republic. France does not commemorate Napoleon in any way. What it does is respect and maintain the historical sites that are connected to him, such as the Invalides, the Louvre, and the Arc de Triomphe, which bears the names of his generals and military victories. But France does not honor him or celebrate his legacy. Several French cities have statues of him and a few, including Paris, have a Rue Bonaparte, but I believe these were named after his family. In 2021, the official Année Napoléon marking the bicentennial of the Emperor’s death consisted mostly of exhibitions and conferences, yet it was still seen as a celebration and criticized by many French people.

Do you expect to see a new generation of historians turn to Napoleon, inspired by Ridley Scott’s blockbuster?

While I do see a lot of popular interest in Napoleon, there is almost no interest from historians. For one thing, the American historical school has been turning away from European history for a long time now. Away from the great man theory, and from dead White men in particular. I am one of the very few American historians who have written seriously about Napoleon in recent years – which is a pity, because he is such an important historical figure, with an imposing legacy across the world.

What about French historians?

Many of them are still influenced by France’s historical school, which began in the late 1920s and still emphasizes major historical forces, such as social or cultural history, while maintaining a real suspicion of research that focuses too intently on individuals. As a result, French historians, for the most part, don’t write a lot of biographies. Look at Robespierre, for instance. There are few decent biographies of him in French, and a lot of them in English. The same goes for Napoleon.

The Russian cavalry charging at Austerlitz, on December 2, 1805, in Ridley Scott’s film. © Apple TV+

Most American school children know of Napoleon through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 for 15 million dollars, or 337 million in today’s money. Can you tell us more about this French-American transaction?

By 1801, the French colonial empire in North America was dwindling. Canada had been lost to the British in 1763, and Saint-Domingue – the “jewel of the Antilles” – had become a quasi-independent state in the Haitian Revolution. To regain control of the island, Napoleon sent an expedition led by his brother-in-law, Charles Leclerc. But it failed, decimated by yellow fever and beaten by the Haitians. With the loss of Saint-Domingue, Bonaparte realized that there was no point in trying to maintain a colonial empire in the region. So he indicated to the Americans that he was willing to sell Louisiana. In short, Thomas Jefferson said, “Well, we really like New Orleans.” Napoleon replied, “Ok, I’ll sell you New Orleans, but what if you took the whole thing?” And so the Americans went, “Ok.” And that was the Louisiana Purchase – a third of the surface area of the continental United States. And the French barely noticed!

It is said that Napoleon wanted to escape to America…

His elder brother, Joseph, did settle in Bordentown, New Jersey, after the fall of the empire, and married an American. Napoleon himself dreamed of the United States during his exile in Saint Helena. There’s even a wonderful film by Antoine de Caunes about it, called Monsieur N. (2003). At the end, people think Napoleon is dead, but his orderly is actually the one in the coffin, while the Emperor has escaped to Louisiana, where he lives as a New Orleans bourgeois! But this “American dream” was really just a passing idea. I’m not sure it’s that important in the story of Napoleon.

Napoleon certainly has an American legacy. At least ten cities in the U.S. are named after him – more than anywhere in the world – and many more locations are named after his battles. Why do you think the Emperor has such a hold over the local landscape?

Americans were fascinated by him! We tend to forget today just how enormously Napoleon, his victories, and his legacies loomed over the 19th-century collective imagination – literary, artistic, and political. During his final years, Napoleon himself remarked: “What a novel my life has been.” And it’s hard to disagree! He was such a major presence; everybody was obsessed with him. Chateaubriand, Balzac, Hugo, Stendhal, Goethe, Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Sir Walter Scott wrote endlessly about Napoleon. In 1850, Emerson wrote one of his greatest essays about him, “Napoleon, or the Man of the World.” Political figures took up his legacy as well, like Garibaldi and Bolívar. It makes sense that a lot of Americans admired him and named places after him.

One of the copies of Napoleon’s death mask. © Fondation Napoléon
Ad campaign for the Diovol Plus AF antacid medicine, 1997-1998. Courtesy of Bertrand Minisclou

Since his death in exile, Napoleon has been heavily commercialized. His likeness has been used to sell watches, cigars, grills, burgers, oysters, spirits, and energy drinks. And there are now Napoleon bobbleheads, Playmobil, Lego, as well as socks, T-shirts, mugs, and even NFTs! Is that the price to pay as a pop icon?

Of course! People aren’t doing this for Hitler or Stalin! Napoleon is seen as fascinating, as complex – certainly not as a good person, but not as evil incarnate either. There is this absolute fascination surrounding him. His image is so familiar and so redolent of a certain sort of glory that of course it becomes instantly commercialized, with everything from Cognac bottles on down. My favorite pop culture moment is an antacid ad from the 1990s. It uses a posthumous painting of the Emperor, slumped in a chair, with his hand tucked into his jacket the way it always was. And the slogan read: “Some say it was merely a pose. We think it was heartburn. Don’t let heartburn be your Waterloo!”

Napoleonic Relics in America

Although the Emperor now rests at the Invalides in Paris, several “souvenirs” remain in the United States. The most surprising of these is undoubtedly his penis! Removed after his death, the appendage traveled between Corsica, London, Philadelphia, and New York City, where it was exhibited for a time at the Museum of French Art, before being bought at auction in 1977 by eminent urologist and relic collector, John K. Lattimer. Today, it belongs to Lattimer’s daughter and is kept in the basement of a suburban house in Englewood, New Jersey. Another coveted Napoleonic object is the emperor’s death mask, a plaster cast of his face taken in Saint Helena, at least four copies of which have crossed the Atlantic. They can currently be admired at Boston University, Hamilton College in New York State, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Cabildo Museum in New Orleans. Lastly, Napoleon Wrapped in His Dream, a bust sculpted by Auguste Rodin in 1904 at the request of an American collector, was rediscovered in 2015. After more than 80 years in hiding, it is now on public display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Napoleon: A Concise Biography
by David A. Bell, Oxford University Press, 2015.

Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution by David A. Bell, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.

Interview published in the January 2024 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.